After a year from the announcement of the three competitors, NASA announced in a statement (ref.) that it has awarded the HLS (Human Landing System) contract solely to SpaceX within the Artemis Program. Therefore, the company from Boca Chica has the task of bringing man back to the Moon after the Apollo 17 mission of 1972.
The reasons for NASA’s choice
According to the Washington Post, the main reason for the selection was the favorable price proposed by SpaceX, which seems almost incredible considering the Starship is significantly more innovative than the other two proposals from Blue Origin and Dynetics. According to documents obtained by the Washington Post, NASA would not have been able to finance any of the three vectors due to the lack of funding received from Congress.
However, SpaceX has reduced its requests to $2.9 billion, taking on half of the production costs planned in the Artemis program. All of this was possible thanks to Elon Musk‘s company philosophy of component reuse and rapid development based on test-to-fail. In addition to this, there is the high amount of payload that the Starship can support and the large living module that will be built inside it. However, any increases in the Artemis mission budget may lead NASA to choose a second landing vehicle. It is a remote possibility at the moment, but not to be ruled out for the coming years.
How the Starship will arrive on the Moon
Phase A” outlined in the contract signed between NASA and SpaceX, the Boca Chica company will be responsible for assembling and launching the Starship (or Moonship or Lunar Starship) for two missions: one demonstration and another with a crew on board. Unlike previous Space Shuttle flights, the ownership of the spacecraft will remain with the company and not with the agency. The SpaceX HLS will be very different from the Starship used for low Earth orbit. As it will only serve as an elevator between the Lunar Gateway and the Moon, it will not be equipped with a thermal shield as it will never return to Earth.
In particular, the Starship will be used for the Artemis 3 mission, currently scheduled for 2024. The Starship/Moonship will be launched from Earth on a Falcon Heavy and remain in lunar orbit until the Orion arrives. The Orion, launched by an SLS with a crew on board, will rendezvous with the Starship/Moonship or the Lunar Gateway (the first module of which is scheduled for launch in 2024). This will allow the astronauts to transfer to the Starship and land on the moon. Delays in the Artemis mission may facilitate the development of the Lunar Gateway. Once mission tasks are completed, the astronauts will depart on the Starship/Moonship and transfer back to the Orion to return home.